Nat & Lo Check Out Terra Bella, Google’s Satellite Arm

April 13, 2016 - Written By Daniel Fuller

The phrase “analytics in space” sounds sort of surreal, like an ironic movie title. That phrase, however, perfectly describes the mission of Terra Bella, a satellite building startup that joined with Google a few years ago. As part of their ongoing 20% Project, curious Googlers Nat and Lo, along with their trusty cameras, made their way to the Terra Bella labs to have a look at their refrigerator-sized satellites and talk with some of the folks involved about exactly how these satellites work, what they’re for and what can be done with the data that the tiny space photographers gather.

One of the first things that the pair learned about the satellites is that they’re made to be as cheap as possible in order to facilitate deployment in massive numbers, which should result in the gathering of appropriately massive amounts of photographs from space. The cameras inside each satellite are not unlike what’s in a common smartphone, but are supported at ground level by special processing that, in essence, takes the highest-quality and clearest bits from each picture at different angles and throws them all together to create a cohesive, high-resolution image. The images themselves, however, are not the aim of the project. Instead, Terra Bella is looking to pull data from the images. Things like monitoring the pace and trends of deforestation, watching erosion and climate change and tracking the movement of ships from harbor to harbor. Over time, the project hopes to gather even more data and find more uses for it, from government to activism and everything in between.

When Nat and Lo met up with Fred, one of the workers that actually builds the petite satellites, they were a bit surprised to learn that a great deal of tape is involved in the creation of the satellites. Considering their role, this makes sense; in space, there will be no gravitational forces and barely any outside elements acting on the satellites, barring them being hit by something, which would most likely dismantle even the most well-built of objects. Thus, using the cheapest build method possible makes sense. Terra Bella’s plans are to eventually deploy entire constellations of these tiny satellites to poll huge amounts of data from pictures taken around the world on a daily or even hourly basis, allowing close monitoring and agile decision making for those making use of the data.